Getting Dirk Nowitzki out of his comfort zone is agenda item No. 1 for the Heat.
Will the Dallas Mavericks have an answer for the Heat’s “Big Five”?
The training wheels are off. It’s time for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to ride his best lineup, the one featuring Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller alongside the Big Three.
Due to serious injuries to Haslem and Miller this season, we’ve seen less than two quarters worth of ball with that lineup on the court thus far, but the early results have been staggering: Heat 51, Opponents 32.
Spoelstra has exhibited patience with this lineup, saving it for the final stretches of Games 4 and 5 against Chicago. But it’s safe to say the Heat have looked their best recently with Haslem and Miller on the court, which may cause Spoelstra to bust it out earlier in the game.
Why is this lineup so effective?
In Miller and Haslem, the Heat have two floor-stretchers who don’t compromise their defense. Despite Miller’s 3-point struggles from downtown in the playoffs, the veteran still poses as a threat beyond the arc, which effectively pins his defender to the perimeter. Haslem, too, will make the defense pay if they leave him open in the midrange.
But defense was where this five-man unit shined in the Chicago series. It suffocated the Bulls with quickness and lateral length as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade locked down Derrick Rose, forcing other Bulls to pick up the slack. But the Mavericks don’t go all-in with their point guard like Chicago did, which means that James and Wade’s defensive effect won’t be so profound on the ball.
The five-man unit posed the perfect antidote to Chicago’s imbalanced attack, but Dallas has enough weapons to counter. But will the Mavs be able to consistently?
Can anyone in a Heat uniform stop Dirk Nowitzki?
Before they started to verse their big men in the scouting report on Nowitzki, the Heat coaching staff emphasized one thing above all else:
Dirk is going to hit his fair share of jumpers -- some of them unconscionable.
"You just have to make [Nowitzki] work for everything," Haslem said. "You have to play the percentages. Every shot has to be a tough shot."
In other words, don't get frustrated by the results so long as the process of defending Nowitzki is executed with precision. What's the process like? The Heat have a list of objectives to defend Nowitzki, and a list of candidates for the job that includes Chris Bosh, Haslem, Joel Anthony and James.
First, Dirk wants to release over his right shoulder with a series of shot fakes. Heat defenders will try to push Dirk to his right hand and stay down on those fakes.
Second, the Heat will redefine what it means to front Dirk in "the post," which will extend all the way to the 3-point line! By playing on top of Nowitzki, the Heat hope to force him to the rim. Why? Because so much of the Heat's defensive success lies in the quickness and instincts of their weakside help defenders -- guys like Wade, James and Anthony who, in a split second, can converge in the paint. As a result, watch for the Heat big men to show hard and force Dirk downhill.
Above all, the Heat will apply their physicality in combating Dirk -- one reason they might very well call on James to guard Dirk for the game's final dozen or so possessions.
As strong and intuitive as LeBron is, it might not even matter -- but it won't be for a lack of effort.
Does Dallas have the wing defenders to slow James and Wade?
There was a point in Shawn Marion's career when he was arguably the best 1-through-4 defender in basketball. In case we'd all forgotten, Marion effectively unleashed his unusual combination of length, deceptiveness, physicality and quick feet against Kevin Durant in the Western Conference finals.
Now Marion will be asked to contend with James, who is a far more aggressive offensive player than Durant. Marion has been a tough nut for LeBron to crack. Over the past two seasons, James is shooting just 5-for-20 against The Matrix, with three turnovers.
Wade, meanwhile, presents a more interesting series of choices for Dallas. DeShawn Stevenson is the Mavericks' designated defender on the wing and he'll open each game on Wade. The NBA's Stats Cube tells us that Wade scored only a single field goal during the 30 minutes he shared the floor with Stevenson this season. When Stevenson took a seat, Wade exploded for 42 points in 50 minutes.
But the Mavericks' most potent lineups feature Jason Terry alongside Jason Kidd, which means Dallas has some difficult choices to make with regard to Wade. The Mavs will often cross-match Kidd on an opponent's shooting guard, but what happens when the Heat insert Mike Miller in lieu of a point guard?
Truth be told, the key to Dallas' man-to-man perimeter defense isn't Terry, Kidd, J.J. Barea or even Stevenson -- it's Tyson Chandler. Mop in hand, Chandler will be called upon to clean up any defensive mess left in the wake of a drive by James or Wade. For this, the Mavericks are quite grateful.
Do the Heat have an answer for Dallas' zone?
The NBA Zone Defense: Not just for feeble-minded, quiche-eating, lackadaisical defensive units anymore!
You can thank Rick Carlisle, Dwane Casey and the rest of the Mavericks coaching staff for that. They have implemented a smooth zone that operates with such a mechanical efficiency that the Mavs show zone even after their opponent misses a shot, which is almost unheard of in the NBA.
In their two losses against Dallas this season, the Heat encountered the Mavericks' zone on 56 plays and scored only 40 points. Overall, the Heat shot 13-for-45 against the zone. More than 40 percent of those attempts were 3-pointers and many more were long 2s, as an impatient Heat offense settled for jump shots rather than perform the off-ball movement necessary to upset the zone.
That isn't an easy task against the Mavericks. Their zone is a well-oiled machine, but interestingly, each defender is given a great deal of latitude. Against pick-and-rolls, the Mavs will switch freely, creating mismatches that, in theory, should favor the offense, yet often result in awkward possessions (see James posting up Terry in the Nov. 20 game).
Resourceful offenses will often try to find that soft spot in the middle, only to find that Brendan Haywood (or occasionally Chandler) regards the foul line as an extension of his designated space. Try to go under the zone along the baseline, and Dallas has a contingency plan for that, as well.
To further confound its opponents, Dallas will frequently flow in and out of the zone without obvious warning. All of this is intended to get the offense out of its rhythm and induce jump shots. The early-season Heat obliged the Mavericks to this effect. The Finals model can't afford to.
Is Tyson Chandler finally the center the Heat can’t overcome?
Sure, Dirk Nowitzki ranks as the best player the Heat have faced in the playoffs, but there’s another Dallas player that warrants his own superlative. Chandler is the best center the Heat have tangled with in the postseason.
En route to the Finals, the Heat have quietly tiptoed around the top centers in the East, Dwight Howard and Al Horford. The Heat have managed to neutralize Joakim Noah, Jermaine O’Neal and Spencer Hawes, but Chandler stands a cut above, as a force on both ends of the floor.
In the first meeting between these two teams, Chandler was largely responsible for sending the Heat home with a loss. He tallied 14 points and 17 rebounds, but what stood out the most was his ability to disrupt James and Wade. He contested every one of their drives and forced them to think twice about entering the paint.
If there ever was a stopper for Wade and James’ paint attack, Chandler’s the guy to do it. All in all, James and Wade scored 34.3 points per 36 minutes with Chandler on the floor this season, but 67.0 points per 36 minutes with Chandler on the bench.
Offensively, the Heat must treat him like a more powerful Noah, whom the Heat struggled to ground on the boards in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Putbacks are always a concern with Chandler, and Joel Anthony will need all the help he can get to box Chandler out -- and keep him boxed out. Noah shot just 9-for-28 at the rim in the last series, but the Heat won’t be so lucky with Chandler, who shot a scorching 65.4 percent from the floor this season.